When Kingdom Hearts was first announced, most people scratched their head. Final Fantasy and Disney together? Over ten years, and seven games, later, Kingdom Hearts has become a powerhouse franchise for Square Enix. With Kingdom Hearts III finally on the horizon, now is a perfect time to revisit past games in the franchise. Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD ReMIX offers up three early entries in the series, Kingdom Hearts Final Mix, Re:Chain of Memories, and 358/2 Days, and while it has its flaws, it’s one of the best HD collections I have ever played.
Kingdom Hearts casts you in the role of Sora, the chosen wielder of the Keyblade. As Sora, you’ll team up with Donald and Goofy and travel across various Disney themed worlds on a search for your missing friends. The various Disney villains are up to no good and you will join forces with characters such as Aladdin and Ariel to thwart their evil plans. Sora uses his unique weapon to battle enemies in a combat system that is a perfect marriage of turn-based RPGs and a Zelda-esque action game.
Kingdom Hearts holds up surprisingly well. The story is still whimsically entertaining, and the combat remains deep and enjoyable. Kingdom Hearts’ art style borrows heavily from Disney animation, not just in the characters and environments that originate from the House of Mouse, but also in the original creations. The colorful designs and crisp animations lend themselves well to the HD upgrade, making Kingdom Hearts one of the best HD remakes I’ve ever seen.
The version of Kingdom Hearts included in this collection is the Final Mix version, previously only available in Japan. Final Mix added a slew of new features, such as new enemies, new weapons, new combat abilities and an extra optional boss. There have also been updates made to this HD version of Final Mix, such as special attacks being moved to the Triangle button, ala Kingdom Hearts 2, and a completely remastered soundtrack, replacing the digital tracks with live instruments. The new soundtrack sounds incredible, and is one of the best additions to this version. I honestly got excited getting to each new world just so I could hear the improved music. The issues that existed in the original game are still present. The camera is still a huge pain, the level design leaves a lot to be desired, and the platforming is so-so at best. The additions and changes help make the experience feel fresh for players who have already played Kingdom Hearts, especially if it’s been awhile since they’ve played it.
Re:Chain of Memories is the PS2 remake of the original GBA game. It’s the direct sequel to Kingdom Hearts, and sets the stage for Kingdom Hearts 2. You once again take control of Sora as he travels through Castle Oblivion, a mysterious castle that causes those who enter it to slowly lose their memories.Over the course of his adventure, Sora will also encounter members of Organization XIII for the first time, who feature heavily in Kingdom Hearts 2. Once you’ve completed Sora’s story, you unlock the ability to play through as Riku, following his own adventure through Castle Oblivion, that runs concurrently with Sora’s. Both stories offer compelling stories that broaden the mythology of the series, though I personally found Riku’s tale, with it’s more introspective slant, to be the more interesting of the two.
Re: Chain of Memories is a deviation from the usual Kingdom Hearts formula. It’s a dungeon crawler for one; you’ll use cards you collect from battle to create new areas to progress through each level. Cards play a big role in combat as well, as the combat system has been reimagined as a card battler. You still control Sora in a 3D space where you can run, jump and dodge roll around enemies, but all attacking, spell-casting, and summoning is controlled by your trusty deck of cards.
Aside from the HD visuals, this is the same game that was released on the PS2 in 2008. Re: Chain of Memories is a quirky entry in the series, playing unlike anything that came before or since. An overall challenging and rewarding experience, it is not without its flaws. While relying on card decks for combat adds an extra level of skill and depth to battles, there will be times when you wish you could just mash an enemy with your Keyblade, or cast a spell at will. The ability to create the areas you venture through in each level is a freeing experience for a series that is usually pretty linear, but it can become a real chore to scour entire areas looking for specific cards or fighting every Heartless on a floor for experience. If you stick with it, however, Re: Chain of Memories is a very satisfying experience, featuring a reflective and thoughtful set of narratives, a deep battle system, with some of the best boss fights in the series, and some of the most interesting and charismatic villains to appear in a Kingdom Hearts game.
The final feature in this collection is 358/2 Days, originally released on the Nintendo DS. Days tells the story of Roxas, a character introduced in Kingdom Hearts 2, and his days spent with Organization XIII. It’s a surprisingly personal and melancholy story about friendship and betrayal. Unlike the other games in the collection, Days is not playable, instead being an HD remaster of the cutscenes from that game, with some additional ones created for this release. It’s disappointing that Days isn’t playable in this collection, though I understand that would have required the team to essentially make a new game. Still, more could have been done to make the cutscenes more of a cinematic viewing experience. While the majority of the scenes are fully animated and voiced, there are many times when a screen of text is used to explain a plot point. Watching these cinematics feels less like a movie, and more like watching a cutscene viewer in a video game. These are also the roughest looking HD visuals on the disc, though with many of the scenes originating from the DS, this is to be expected.
All that being said, the Days cinematics still serve their primary purpose of telling you what is arguably the most personal and touching story in the Kingdom Hearts series. It just would have been nice if more of an effort had been made to make it a more enjoyable viewing experience. If you have access to a DS, I recommend picking up 358/2 Days and playing it there, as that is still the best way to experience that story.
Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD ReMIX is exactly what an HD collection should aspire to be. It brings the games to the HD era with crisp visuals, a fantastic remastered soundtrack, and smart new gameplay additions that bring it up to snuff with modern games, while leaving everything that made the original release so brilliant intact. While it is disappointing that 358/2 Days isn’t playable, it isn’t nearly enough to mar such a fantastic collection of games.